Jim Mills remembers Earl Scruggs

This remembrance of the great Earl Scruggs comes from former Ricky Skaggs banjo player, celebrated recording artist and avid banjo collector, Jim Mills.

First of all, let me say that Earl Scruggs was my all time hero on this earth. He was the driving force behind most everything I’ve ever achieved in my life, and it all started when I was around 4 or 5 years old playing in the floor with some kind of toy – Lincoln Logs or something.

By age 10 my older brother already had a good record collection, and when he put on a 33 rpm recording of the original 1949 cut of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what any of the instruments were, I just knew I was drawn to “that sound” almost uncontrollably. I had to hear more of it. My brother recalled that I kept asking him to “play it again,” and then to “play it again.”

Most little boys want to be a cowboy, or a policeman, or a fireman when they grow up. But because of Earl Scruggs, I wanted to be a banjo player. And I knew right away that there was nothing else for me to do – absolutely nothing else in this world.

That was only the beginning of the immeasurable influence that Earl Scruggs was to have on me, and having no knowledge of it at the time, it pointed me steadfastly in the direction of my life’s work.

From as far back as I can remember there was always a banjo in our house. My grandfather played clawhammer style, and my dad played some in a two finger style, so I remember seeing a banjo propped up in a corner in a room in our house always. But I was never interested in the least until that day Earl Scruggs came through those little stereo speakers. It was no less than amazing; I’d never heard anything like it. The funny thing is that’s been over 40 years ago, and I’ve still never heard anything like it – and doubt I ever will until I get to see Earl again.

I didn’t get to meet Earl in person until I was in my 20s and already making a living playing the banjo. But like many others, I felt that I almost knew him simply through the endless days I’d spent listening to him on those records. I would just sit in the quiet of my room for hours and focus on those old album covers, and study everything I could see in them. I’d try to get my hands to look like Earl’s, and then I’d try to bend my picks like his were. I had a thin leather strap made like his early straps. I even tried to pry my teeth apart in the front with a toothpick to get the same gap he had in his teeth. But they kept growing in straight, to my disappointment.

I don’t know quite why or how his influence was so strong on me. I know his playing had influenced so many others, both before and after me, but it seems the majority of folks went on with life, grew up, got jobs, got married, had families, and ended up simply playing for their own enjoyment. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but for me, honestly, I knew early on that not playing the banjo was not an option for me; it was what I was supposed to do. The influence of Earl Scruggs’s playing had planted a burning desire in me to do nothing else.

When I finally got to meet him years later, he was just as nice as I had imagined all that time, even more so. He was very complimentary, and just a true gentleman.

I was playing an old 1930’s Flathead Style 3 Gibson banjo, and he commented on it saying, “I had an old 3 like that years ago, and it was a good one.” I couldn’t believe it: I was talking to Earl Scruggs about pre war Gibson banjos!

A few years later the Arts Council of North Carolina honored Earl with a Lifetime Achievement Heritage Award, and they called me to play banjo at the presentation. It was a last minute thing and I really didn’t know what to expect. When I got there to rehearse with the rest of the band, I had no idea who “the band” was going to be. It turned out to be none other than Horace Scruggs (Earl’s brother) on guitar, and Jim Shumate (Flatt and Scruggs’ 1st fiddler) on fiddle. I just about fell out.

All the newspaper and television folks were there as well, and to top that off, Earl and Louise were sitting in the front row only ten feet in front of me! I had to play Earl’s Breakdown for them and the rest of the packed crowd that were there to see Earl. That was the only time I remember ever really being nervous playing a banjo. I’ve said before that it doesn’t bother me at all to be on stage in front of 50,000 people as long as there is a banjo hanging around my neck. But put Earl Scruggs in the crowd and it’s a different story.

That’s another thing… I was always in awe of the man. I didn’t get to go to all the picking parties at the Scruggs home as much as some did, as I was usually on the road working with someone. But when I did visit with Earl in his home, even though he was very relaxed and as gracious as could be to me, I very seldom could ever completely relax around him. Not that I worship any man, but he meant so much to me I guess, that I never saw him as just a normal guy. He was always bigger than life to me.

After his Memorial Service at the Ryman Auditorium last Sunday, at the graveside service in Madison, I stood there and thought back on all that this great man had not only given to me, but to the countless others that he would never know.

I stayed until the very end, and watched as they covered up that mound. And I cried as they laid my hero down.